LAHAINA, Hawaii — Marquette has been one of college basketball's top programs in the nine years Tom Crean has been its head coach. He couldn't remember a performance as dominating as the one that sent the Golden Eagles into the championship game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Jerel McNeal had 20 points and Dominic James added 18 to lead the 11th-ranked Golden Eagles in a never-in-doubt 91-61 semifinal victory over Oklahoma State on Tuesday night.
"We've had some great moments, some great segments, some great halves, but this was dominant," he said after Marquette (4-0) advanced to Wednesday night's title game where they will play the winner of the semifinal between No. 13 Duke and Illinois. "We needed a step up and be counted game for our own mind-set and we did."
It didn't look like the same Marquette team that opened the tournament with a 74-63 victory over Chaminade, the Division II host school. The Golden Eagles didn't give themselves some breathing room in the opener until a defense-keyed 11-2 run that started with six minutes to play.
That run came right away against the Cowboys.
The Golden Eagles opened the game with a 13-2 spurt over the first four minutes. The Cowboys just didn't look ready for the intense defense Marquette threw at them. The Golden Eagles had hands reaching and swiping everywhere as they contested each pass as well as each shot.
Oklahoma State missed six of its first seven shots and turned the ball over four times in the opening burst and it stayed that way throughout the first half as Marquette took a 46-28 lead.
"The best way for our team to come out and get into it is to turn up the defensive intensity," James said. "We hit them first and kept that mentality throughout the game."
The Cowboys were 1-for-11 from 3-point range in the opening half and 10 of Marquette's 22 rebounds were on the offensive end.
"They whipped us in every phase of the game," Oklahoma State coach Sean Sutton said. "Their aggressive play was the difference early. It got us back on our heels. They're always in attack mode and continue to put pressure on you."
Wesley Matthews added 13 points for Marquette, which played three guards, and sometimes four, a move that certainly helped its defensive intensity.
"We bounced back and did what we didn't do well against Chaminade when we were outrebounded by 11," Matthews said. "We knew we had to play tough defense and fight our way back and we did."
The Golden Eagles shot 52.6 percent for the game (30-for-57) and they finished with a 43-28 rebound advantage.
The Cowboys shot 39 percent overall (23-for-59), but were just 4-for-23 from 3-point range.
Marquette opened the second half with a 9-0 run for a 27-point lead. The run started with a three-point play by Matthews on an offensive rebound and was capped by a 3 by James after an Oklahoma State turnover.
The lead got to 33 points twice, the last time at 86-53 on a fast-break dunk by Lazar Hayward with 4:15 to play.
Oklahoma State had a 21-point lead with 15 minutes to play in its opener and held on for an 83-77 win over LSU. The Cowboys couldn't come up with a comeback of their own against Marquette.
"We did that against an extremely competitive team," Crean said of the Cowboys. "For us to outrebound them says a lot about our character. This was a win they'll never forget because of how they did it. We didn't play to our capability at all yesterday and that's a sign of maturity. They stepped up and wanted to play better and they did."
This will be the Golden Eagles' third title game in a preconference tournament in as many years. They won the Great Alaska Shootout and CBE Classic the past two years.
"We're exited to be in the championship game and we'll try to show again what we did today," Matthews said.